with love from the Fertman Family and from The Alexander Alliance
What do these Alexander teachers have in common?
– John Nichols
– Marjorie Barstow
– Eileen Crow
– Lena Frederick
– Bryan Mckenna
– Elisabeth Walker
– David Gorman
– Bill Conable
– Tommy Thompson
– Nica Gimeno
– Marie Francoise Le Foll
– Doris Dietchy
– Ann Waxman
– Sally Swift (creator of Centered Riding)
– Jeremy Chance
– Gilles Estran
– Judy Stern
– Barbara Conable
– Michael Gelb
– Glenna Batson
– Beret Arcaya
– Carol Boggs
– David Mills
– Frank Ottiwell
– Meade Andrews
– Pete Trimmer
– Michael Frederick
– Rosa Louisa Rossi
– Frank Sheldon
– Michael Mazur
– Lyn Charlsen
– And no doubt a few others I cannot remember at the moment.
Answer: Each one of them was welcomed and taught as a guest teacher at The Alexander Alliance in America, Germany, or Japan, or served on the faculty at the Sweet Briar Summer Course in the Alexander Technique, which was required for Alexander Alliance trainees in America as part of their training.
Another Answer: I got to learn from all of them. Wow, how lucky to have studied with such an array of very fine teachers.
Photo taken by Elisabeth Walker – Botanical Garden, Kyoto, Japan
– For Alexander Teachers, Young and Old
As it turns out, I am now older than most people in the world. You know this when once again you do not have to pay as much as normal people to get into a movie theater.
I am now also older than most of the people in our little Alexander world. I was a young whippersnapper and then one morning I woke up, and I was a young senior citizen.
When I was a young whippersnapper, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (http://rzlp.org/), told me there was one way, only one way, to be saved. He said save yourself the way you save stuff in your computer, and then give away what you like and what you think might be helpful, and enjoy doing it.
So when I share my old writings of Alexander’s work, or tell of my experiences as an Alexander teacher, I am writing for all those young, less experienced, wonderful Alexander teachers out there.
I am writing for you when I share my new writings too, like this one. I am over the hill, but that is a good thing. You see, I made it to the top of the hill, and now I am over that! Now I’m coasting. I’m picking up speed. My foot is off the brake. The moon-roof is open, the windows are down and booming out of the speakers B.B. King still sounds as good as ever.
As for my fellow Alexander senior citizens, I won’t be offended if you pass me by. I’ll just wave whether you smile or curse me out. Anyway, I’ve got to watch where I’m going. I’m not the best driver. My kids say they’re giving me five more years, at which time they’re revoking my license and getting me a designated driver.
Right. I was telling you about Reb Zalman. Rebbe Zalman mostly taught through telling stories, stories within stories within stories. That man taught me more about teaching, without teaching.
We were all there waiting like little kids. We were enrolled in a graduate level class in Early Hasidic Masters at Temple University in Philadelphia. Zalman, about five minutes late, walks into the room, crosses the room without looking at us and stands by the window gazing out and taking in the day. He stands there for a minute or so, turned away from us, as we watch him without blinking. He starts quietly singing a Niggun, a simple, wordless melody that repeats itself indefinitely. After about a minute of listening to Zalman’s soft, resonate voice, we shyly join in. Zalman keeps it going until we are no longer self- conscious about singing. My eyes are closed, my head slightly tilted back like Stevie Wonder, and inside I’m spinning around like a Whirling Dervish. Gradually, Zalman’s voice fades out. Our voices, no, our beings, are exactly in sync with Zalman and with each other. We’re sitting in a silence that’s palpable. My eyes open and there is Reb Zalman grinning, sitting on top of the desk that he is supposed to be sitting behind. He sways a few times from side to side, strokes his long salt and pepper beard then, looking at us, no, into us, out of his big eyes, he excitedly says, “That reminds me of a story.” The class has begun.
Now telling stories and gossiping are two different things. When you gossip you hurt three people. You hurt the person you are gossiping about. You hurt the person who has to listen to you gossiping. And you hurt yourself, more than you know.
Good storytelling hurts no one. It’s an indirect way of teaching. You’re not giving advice, not telling a person what they should or shouldn’t do. You’re not moralizing. You’re creating another world and a person is slipping into that world. They’re traveling through a world unknown to them, and they are going to come out of that world getting what they were supposed to get. And it doesn’t have anything to do with you.
One summer my family was driving up to Vermont to teach on Jan Baty’s freewheeling Alexander summer retreat. Martha Hansen was reading Hemingway’s, The Old Man and The Sea out loud. We were all in another world, literally. Noah was ten and dreaming about fishing. Eva was 12 and beginning to understand how symbolism worked. I was shaking in my boots realizing I was that old man who caught a fish that was clearly more than I could handle. And Martha, she was doing what she loved doing since she was 5 years old, reading a great story out loud. Then we realized we missed our turn, were in the middle of nowhere and our gas gauge was way, way, way below empty, but that is another story.
Stories are so exciting to me that I can no longer read books about self-improvement. I’m beyond hope. It’s not that there isn’t room for improvement mind you. It’s just that the concept doesn’t make sense to me anymore.
That’s why I read novels. I get lost in other worlds, in other people, in how other people see. And it’s through getting lost, that I find myself. There I am losing myself in someone else. Losing my self. As an old guy, this is my idea of a good time. I just finished ready Murakami’s 1Q84. It’s a 1000 pages long, and it was too short. I feel terrible, like I just lost a couple really good friends.
There are some good things about getting older. If you’re lucky you start not caring about what other people think of you. You don’t care if everybody likes you, or your work. You don’t take offence easily, and you’re too tired to defend yourself or try to prove anything to anyone. You’ve been there, done that. You’re not sure if being accepted or rejected is a compliment or an insult. It’s not personal anyway. You sing your song for all it’s worth and you stop caring about your voice – like Leonard Cohen or Dylan, you sing your truth.
Or like Walt Whitman.
I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know I held so much goodness.
All seems beautiful to me,
I can repeat over to men and women,
You have done such good to me I would do the same to you,
I will recruit for myself and you as I go,
I will scatter myself among men and women as I go,
I will toss a new gladness and roughness among them,
Whoever denies me it shall not trouble me,
Whoever accepts me he or she shall be blessed and shall bless me.
Blessing others, and receiving blessings when they come my way, and they do, more and more because now I notice them.
That’s it. All the rest is commentary.
Photo: B. Fertman
Perhaps you have or have not seen the film, Jiro Dreams of Sushi. If you have, what I say here will likely make you want to see it again. If you haven’t, you’ll be trying to find out where and when this film is showing.
Not because it’s about sushi, because it is about Jiro. If you’re an Alexander teacher, or if you are someone who uses your hands in your work, which is pretty much everyone, Jiro has a lot to teach you, a lot to show you.
Jiro is 85 years old. Growing up was difficult, not easy. But Jiro made it. Jiro became the embodiment of Bushido, the samurai code of honor.
Jiro’s hands do not look 85 years old because of the way he has used them in his work for 75 years. Nor does his body. Watch how he stands. Watch how he walks. Watch how he works.
You will see much in Jiro’s hands. You will see how free they are. You will see how there is no distortion in his hands. Most people, half Jiro’s age, already have what physical therapists refer to as “natural hand distortion.” Natural hand distortion may be normal, but it is not natural. Jiro’s hands are natural. When Marjorie Barstow, my primary Alexander teacher, was 92, (the last time I saw her), her hands looked just like Jiro’s hands.
Jiro’s hands often curve in a kind of semi-circle. His fingertips gently curl over as the center of his palm floats back, creating a recess in his hand. His wrists are relaxed, the underside of the wrist, the fair skinned side of the wrist lengthens slightly and opens. When his hands are working they are also resting.
Jiro’s hands are flexible. They assume any shape they need to, without undue effort, as he sculpts his ephemeral works of art to the delight of his patrons. My friend and teacher Erika Whittaker would have loved Jiro’s soft, sensitive, supple hands. No doubt.
Erika began studying Alexander’s work when she was eight years old with her aunt, Ethel Webb. She kept studying for another 85 years. Erika was smart, astute, articulate, unassuming, and truly kind, yet not the least bit sentimental. Her memory was sharp, and she was not afraid to say it as she saw it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kQ_j0ksWRN0
Once Erika told me that the way Alexander taught students how to use their hands, and how Alexander actually used his hands were as different as night is from day. Erika said Alexander hands were strong and flexible, and non-formulaic. She said it looked and felt as if he was sculpting you from the inside out. There was no technique, no method.
Elisabeth Walker, currently our oldest living teacher, and another woman who brims with kindness, once gave me a photograph of Alexander working with a student’s ankle. She wanted me to understand that Alexander didn’t just work with a person’s head and neck. He went wherever he needed to go, did whatever he needed to do. Alexander was not bound by any “technique.” Everyday he just did his work. He worked on his craft, in a state of divine dissatisfaction and deep joy, like Jiro. That’s what masters do.
People who know me well feel my devotion to Alexander’s work. That is exactly the reason why I am, at times, saddened by what I see in the Alexander world. Erika was too. I remember sitting next to Erika watching a room full of lively Alexander teachers working together. She leaned over to me and whispered, “Look at those pancake hands! How are you supposed to be able to feel anything or communicate anything with hands like that?” Erika was a kind person. Obviously Alexander did not have pancake hands. She wasn’t being mean or critical. She was concerned. That’s all. She wanted us to have hands like Jiro.
Early on, 51 years ago, I learned how to use my hands functionally. By ten I defined myself as a gymnast, working out six hours a day, six days a week. As gymnasts we taught each other, and sometimes saved each other’s lives, by using our hands. We knew how to bring each other back into balance. Later, studying Aikido and Tai Chi, I learned more about using my hands functionally and sensitively, ironically so I could lead people off their balance.
But it was studying Chanoyu, Japanese Tea Ceremony, that taught me most about my hands. In Chado you learn how to prepare and serve food, and tea. You learn how to use an array of utensils. Every little movement becomes vital. You learn the simplest, easiest, most functional, and most beautiful way of doing every little thing. You learn how to serve. You learn more about a person through the way they use their hands than you do by looking at their face.
So when I see hands like Jiro’s, I bow deeply. I am moved. I weep without knowing exactly why. Perhaps from my sheer love of beauty, perhaps from witnessing such unwavering dedication.
May we all learn from Jiro, and from his hands, and one day, like Jiro, may our method become no method, our teaching no teaching. And may we become free, like Jiro, through a complete, lifelong, and joyful commitment to our work.